Notre Dame looks to close out an 11-1 season tomorrow night as they take on a Stanford Cardinal team that has taken a tumble the last few years. Coming into the game at 3-8 and 11-18 since 2019, this is more of a rivalry game by definition and history than it is by its current state. Regardless, we will take a deep dive into the numbers and see if we can find a reason to be worried about a potential upset tomorrow night.
Notre Dame’s offense has improved substantially since the Virginia Tech game and have feasted on the poor defenses placed in front of them. Since their bye week, Jack Coan has the 8th highest PFF Grade in the country at 93.3, ranking just ahead of Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Kyren Williams has also been playing his best football after relatively struggling earlier in the year, coming out as the 16th highest graded rusher during the same timeframe.
And it doesn’t look like Stanford has what it takes to mess up the offense’s rhythm. They’ve been a very average secondary, solid but unspectacular ranking 63rd in EPA/Pass Allowed and 70th in PFF Coverage Grade. But they are particularly weak at the Linebacker position, one that the Irish are well suited to take advantage of with Michael Mayer and Kyren Williams. Levani Damuni and Ricky Miezan have struggled in coverage with both allowing an NFL Passer Rating over 100 and posting replacement-level PFF Coverage Grades. Their primary defensive backs have all been better in both metrics so look for a lot of Kyren Williams and Michael Mayer through the air.
But for the first time all year we are going to say Notre Dame should, maybe, look to run more as long as the Cardinal aren’t stacking the box every play. This team has struggled HEAVILY against the run, allowing the second highest Success Rate on the ground. PFF has also disliked their play as they rank their Run Defense 129th out of 130 teams. Now, this is all under the caveat that Stanford isn’t calling Engage Eight on every play to stop Kyren. The strategy should still always be grounded in taking what the defense gives you. But, if there ever was a game to RTDB this is it. Throw in Stanford’s poor coverage Linebackers and Kyren Williams could be in for a monster day.
Stanford’s offense hasn’t been much better and sort of follows the same script as their defense. They’ve been mediocre passing but have really struggled running the ball. They have pared back on the run heavy attack and have actually thrown more often on early downs than Notre Dame. But when you’re only gaining positive EPA on 33% of plays you can’t really be running even 40% of the time without consistently shooting yourself in the foot. It’s the myth of balance and with the Cardinal struggling on 3rd Downs this year it adds up to a poor offense.
So that being said, what is Stanford’s path to victory? It probably involves running the ball under 10 times which is something they just won’t do. But they should because they’ve been successful throwing on early downs to the tune of 0.15 EPA/Play and just flat out can’t run the ball. They have two solid weapons in TE Benjamin Yurosek and WR Brycen Tremayne with both averaging over 1.0 EPA per target and posting the highest PFF Grades among Cardinal pass catchers.
According to the depth chart I’ve seen Nathaniel Peat has taken over the starting role from Austin Jones and has clearly been a much better option for the Cardinal. But given how well Notre Dame has defended the run this year it shouldn’t make much of a difference without a big game from Tanner McKee. He’s been fine in his first year as a starter but to this point hasn’t shown the ceiling necessary to pull off the upset. Only 36.3% of his throws have been thrown 10 or more yards downfield and he has a lighting fast 2.48 Time to Throw, focusing heavily on a short passing game. But it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough, with McKee throwing for a 96.6 NFL Passer Rating when he gets the ball out in 2.5s or less. A respectable number for sure, but one that probably won’t get the job done. For context Jack Coan has passed for a 119.9 rating. So all in all, this seems like an offense who will run the ball too much to their detriment and has the pieces necessary to be successful passing in the future but still needs some development.
So time for the prediction. Jack and I are both taking Notre Dame to win and cover as we don’t see Stanford doing enough offensively to keep up with the steamroller that is Jack Coan, Kyren Williams, and Tommy Rees. That guarantees me (Cooper) the regular season victory in this year’s media and blogger prediction contest.